For today, we have an excerpt from Jeffe Kennedy's THE MARK OF THE TALA. Book 1 in THE TWELVE KINGDOMS, it's received the Editor's Pick from RT Magazine and recently finaled in Fantasy for FF&P's PRISM Award.
THE MARK OF THE TALA, as well as book 2 in the trilogy, THE TEARS OF THE ROSE, are on sale at Amazon for only $2.51 each in Kindle!
*** Excerpt ***
This was not Amelia’s wedding. With only a small space of time to prepare, there would be no glamour or elaborate lace. It wouldn’t be right, anyway, for a battlefield ceremony, for me to wear fancy satin slippers on ground still soaked with blood.
Amelia’s ladies rallied brilliantly, dragging out a gown of silver cloth Amelia had put aside because it was a rare color that did not flatter her peach and gold complexion. They rattled on, setting to altering it for me, amid thanks and tears for my sacrifice. They wouldn’t pet me so nicely if they knew how I’d betrayed their lady.
My guilt worsened as they found hot water for me to bathe in, gently washing and drying my hair, brushing it until it gleamed. They left it unbound so it streamed nearly to the backs of my knees. I kept thinking about the plan to decamp and ride off following the ceremony, how impractical my outfit and hair would be if I had to travel any distance.
Then again, that would likely be the least of my worries.
I tried not to fret about it, what would happen next. Rayfe wouldn’t harm me. But he would take from me what Uorsin had taken from my mother. I might become like her, forever gazing out the window at the homeland I’d lost, babies wrested from my loins at my husband’s will. Perhaps they’d assign someone to me, to teach me whatever their manners might be.
And yet, when Rayfe had spoken—in his cagey way—about why Annfwn needed me, he hadn’t mentioned babies. They clearly had plenty of shape-shifters. Maybe it was something else about my blood. Salena’s blood, mixed with Uorsin’s.
I deliberately did not think about how Uorsin and Ursula would receive this news.
Dafne arrived as the ladies finished every bit of buffing and polishing they could think of. She stopped, eyes wide. “Princess Andi—you look phenomenally beautiful!”
“You don’t have to sound so surprised,” I grumbled.
She winked at me, and some of the anxiety dissolved in my chest. “They’ve set up a platform at the base of the road and draped it with silk. It looks quite nice.”
“Oh, good. I’d hate to marry my blackmailer on bare wood.”
The other ladies gasped, but Dafne laughed. “Sorry I’m late—but I’ve packed all your things. This is for you.” She handed me a little blue velvet box.
I held it, tears pricked the edges of my eyes, and I blinked them back. All I needed was for the ladies to have to fix the paint on my eyes. “I wish you could come with me.”
“I wish it, too, with all my heart. But outsiders are never allowed into Annfwn. You can ask, but I’m sure that’s what King Rayfe will say.” She held my eyes, a solemn promise. “Open your gift.”
Inside lay a necklace of silver with a full moon pendant. It would perfectly match Rayfe’s ring. Dafne slipped the rose of Glorianna off my neck, remarking that the gold clashed with my dress. She fastened the necklace with Moranu’s moon in its place and smiled. “Much better, don’t you think?”
And then it was time to go already.
I fussed with my mother’s doll, taking Rayfe’s ring from the hiding spot and tucking it into my bosom. One of the ladies promised to pack up my few remaining things and send them down. They kissed me good-bye, weeping. Their sympathy warmed something in me, and I thanked them for their care.
Hugh met me in the main inner courtyard, resplendent in gold and white, jewels flashing. A full set of cavalry, all on white horses, waited to precede us, Terin neatly pocketed in the center on a giant roan.
Hugh took my hands, blue eyes somber. “You don’t have to do this, Andi. We can still find a way.”
I squeezed his hands, my heart cramping with guilt. And a tinge of impatience. Why couldn’t he see that the time for the noble gesture was over?
“I’ve already given my word, remember? This is the only way. No turning back now. I imagine I am far from the only or last princess—or prince, for that matter—to wed for peace.”
“No.” He tried to smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “But I would have wished for better than that…beast of a man for you.”
The way he spat the words took me aback. Fear I thought I’d set aside stirred, prickled in my gut, as I remembered the ravenous way Rayfe had kissed me. The wolf in him. The black raptor, too? How my mother had faded to nothing and died. “You don’t think he’ll hurt me, do you?”
His face creased with concern. “He won’t kill you, no, but he will—” Hugh stopped himself, shook his head. “It’s not my place to speak of these things. Has Amelia talked to you of the…ways between a man and a woman?”
I smiled to cover the laugh. Or between a man and a man or a woman and a woman, I wanted to remind him. Avonlidgh seemed a simpler place than Mohraya, one where the bawdier songs were never sung, apparently.
“I know something of it. I will be fine. Don’t fret for me.”
“If he isn’t gentle with you—”
“Hugh.” Impulsively I stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. “Don’t think on it. I’m no cringing flower. Noon approaches and we must retrieve Amelia.”
Over his shoulder, I caught a fleeting sneer on Terin’s face. He might be the one I’d seen at Rayfe’s right hand all those days they rode to parley. I ignored the contempt he clearly harbored for me, though it made me feel a little tired inside. Oddly, despite Hugh’s fears, I found I trusted Rayfe to keep his word, that he meant it at least when he spoke of me as valuable to him and Annfwn. One doesn’t destroy what’s of value.
Still, I wouldn’t feel right until Amelia was back in Hugh’s arms and the Tala headed back to the Wild Lands and beyond.
Never mind that I’d go into exile with them.
Hugh helped me onto a white palfrey draped in the High King’s crimson. I sat uncomfortably sidesaddle, rearranging my streaming hair, glad that it would be a short ride to the bottom of the hill. After that, I promised myself, I’d ride astride even if I had to hike up my skirt and do it bareback. Dafne smirked, clearly reading my thoughts. A note of normal life amid all this drama and playacting.
After this, I’d be totally alone.
This descent was the shadow side of our arrival.
No cheering crowds lined the route. Instead troops, weary of the weeks of siege, wearing their losses hard, stood at somber attention, saluting me as we passed. The bright morning had surrendered to another stormy day, and the wind off the ocean carried a new bite, tumbling ominous black clouds overhead. Between the defeated and grieving faces of the people who stood vigil and the oppressive feel of a looming storm, I had trouble shaking the feeling I rode to my own funeral.
At least I no longer saw an overlay of blood and bodies on the rocky slopes. A possible future averted, then, if I accepted that these visions were real.
It seemed I had no other choice.
The wooden platform stood out at the bottom of the hill, where the road widened and branched, leading out to farmland and forest. The attempt to make it seem festive had the opposite effect. The chill winds tugged at the scarves, ripping one away and sending it tumbling through the assembled soldiers. The pink-clad priest of Glorianna huddled miserably in one corner of the platform, looking pitifully out of place.
And there was Rayfe. Waiting for me.
He stood out in any crowd. He wore his long black hair loose, and the wind tore at it, whipping it like a pennant, a contrast to the deep bloodred of his garments. His face looked fierce, eyes hooded and fastened on me.
Next to him, a weeping Amelia was held upright by several Tala guards, two blades at her throat.
Hugh hissed out a furious breath and kicked his horse into a gallop for the last short distance, his horse shouldering past our armed escort that surrounded Terin. So much for ceremony. I urged my palfrey after him.
By the time I rode up, Hugh had already swung down and charged up the platform steps—only to be stopped by spears. A cry went up from the escort, several pulling swords.
“Stop it! All of you, stand down!” I shouted. Judging by the array of astonished faces, I’d surprised more than myself. “Prince Hugh—would you help me down, please?”
He flashed a furious red look over his shoulder at me and gestured to Amelia. “Surely this is not necessary! What beast treats a Princess in such a way?”
“Simply a guarantee, my enemy,” Rayfe growled, eyes never leaving my face. “In case any of you think to renege.”
“Renege!” Hugh pushed his white-velvet-clad chest into the spear points while Amelia wailed for him. “How dare you impugn my honor!”
I blew out my frustration and struggled with the stupid saddle. I would never strap myself to one of these contraptions again. To my surprise, Terin appeared at my knee to help me down, hastily followed by his erstwhile guards. No contempt for the moment, just that foxy sardonic expression. “Allow me to escort you, Princess.”
He didn’t waste time, but lifted me down and led me immediately to Hugh’s side. I put a hand on Hugh’s arm. When he ignored me, I tugged sharply on him, then ducked under the spears. A hissed order from Rayfe had the spears dropping. Hugh started to surge forward, the spear tips pushing hard on his chest.
“Think!” I urged him quietly. “A few minutes more and she’s safe.”
Hugh’s eyes were wild. “We can’t trust him.”
“We already are. Hugh! Don’t turn this into a bloodbath. Please.”
“Princess Andromeda?” The white-haired priestess of Moranu now stood at the top of the steps. “Are you ready?” Her aqua eyes surveyed Hugh with grave understanding.
“Yes.” I slipped my arm through Hugh’s. “Prince Hugh?”
A bit of sanity crept back into his expression and he nodded, covering my hand with his. I saw Rayfe take note of it, dark-blue eyes glittering. Dafne hastened up, adjusting my dress and hair. Like it mattered how I looked.
Hugh led me up the steps with a semblance of dignity and, with a show of deep loathing, placed my hand in Rayfe’s outstretched one. Rayfe bowed deeply and kissed the back of my hand with great ceremony. Behind me, the spears dropped again, fencing Hugh from me.
“Princess Andromeda. It is a pleasure to see you in person once again. Welcome to the Tala.”
I couldn’t find my voice all of a sudden. I had no words, with my heart choking my throat. Now that I’d accomplished the insurmountable, the reality of what I planned to do hit me hard. The tattered silk scarves snapped in the wind. I stared into Rayfe’s feral gaze, unable to reply.
“Let us begin the ceremony, then,” Rayfe declared.
“I would have my sister stand up for me,” I whispered, the best I could manage at that moment. But Amelia heard me.
“I won’t,” she cried out. “I won’t have you do it, Andi.”
She was only a few arm’s lengths away from me, her tear-ravaged face distorted, her usual beauty shredded by her trials.
“I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through, Ami.” More sorry than she could possibly know.
“It’s not your fault, Andi. It’s him. Don’t marry him—he’s a horrible beast.” She dissolved into tears and I glanced up at Rayfe, who watched me with that impassive gaze that covered so much.
“Have you been harmed?” I asked her, holding Rayfe’s eyes. One corner of his mouth twisted at my accusation and he subtly shook his head.
Amelia simply wept.
“Ami—I have to know. Did anyone hurt you? Did he?” I held out the challenge. My line in the sand.
She lifted a tearstained face, lips wobbly. “No. Not in that way,” she whimpered.
“In any way at all?”
“Yes!” Amelia flung at me. “He means to take my heart from my breast and leave me forever only half of what I am. I won’t stand for it, Andi!”
It pained me, though I understood her reasoning. Amelia had never been without spine; she just chose her battles differently than most.
“I will stand up for you, Princess.” Dafne stood by my side. Terin stepped to Rayfe’s right hand, which surprised me not at all.
Rayfe nodded at someone off to the side, who stepped forward with a bundle in her hands. He took it from her. “A wedding gift for you, Andromeda.”
He shook out the cloak, deep red , but lined with sparkling white fur. He draped it over my shoulders, lifting the long fall of my hair to stream down the back of it. The warmth engulfed me, easing some of my fear. Which made no sense, since it was he who frightened me, not the cold.
“I suspected you might not have a cloak with you.” He said it gravely, but his eyes reminded me of those moments alone. Last night and an age ago.
“Thank you. It comes as a comfort to me that you wish me warm.”
“I wish far more than that for you, my wife, but this will do for a start.”
“I’m not your wife yet.”
“Then we shall remedy that immediately.”
The priestess of Moranu, whose name I still didn’t know, the miserable-looking bald priest of Glorianna, and another woman draped in deep blue, who must be one of Danu’s, all stepped forward.
One by one, they intoned their blessings, while Rayfe held my hand and two silent armies surrounded us. And while my sister wept as if her heart were breaking. Once the three finished, all offering me the blessings of their goddesses, they fell back and a man stepped into their place. He wore no festive garments but rather was clad in furs. His dark hair fell in knotted ropes around his shoulders, braided with bits of colorful rags and beads. He smelled musky and wild. He carried a large blade and wore a textured silver disc that could only be the full moon.
I must have drawn back slightly, because Rayfe squeezed my hand in a fierce grip. Startled, I glanced up at him.
“This is our way,” he said softly. “It is now your way. Moranu has many faces.”
I couldn’t swallow the cold spit in my throat. Would I be sacrificed after all? Wed before my people and then cut down? It would be easy for Rayfe to do it, to kill us all. And I’d engineered it for him.
“Never fear, my Andromeda.” His stern face urged me to agree, even as he held my hand captive.
Managing to swallow finally, I nodded.
Amelia’s wild sobbing increased in pitch and Hugh shouted as the feral priest stepped close, knife held before him like a candle. Dafne took my other hand, echoing Terin taking Rayfe’s on the right. The priest chanted, words I couldn’t understand, to a deep, throbbing rhythm.
He lowered the blade to the underside of Rayfe’s wrist and sliced, opening a crimson well. I steeled myself and managed not to jerk back when he sliced my wrist also, Dafne squeezing my fingers in sympathy. I half expected thousands of tiny black birds to fly out, but only my blood welled up, bright red and ordinary. The priest took our two hands and held them apart, demanded something unintelligible of the sky, turned my wrist over, and put it on top of Rayfe’s. I hissed at the painful sting and the surge of…something like fire where our blood mingled. Dancing and ducking, the priest wound strips of dark red silk around our joined arms, binding us close together.
Dafne dropped my hand and Terin stepped back. Rayfe adjusted the angle of his arm, interlacing his fingers with mine, bringing us nearly breast to breast. He stared down at me, inscrutable, while his wild priest danced and leapt a circle around us.
“This is one way of keeping a bride from running off,” I muttered.
His stern lips twitched, but he didn’t comment.
The priest stopped his wild gyrations. Said something expectant.
“The ring,” Rayfe whispered.
Oh. Three curses.
“Please tell me you have it.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I have to get it out. Shield me so no one can see.”
“Where is this hiding spot?”
“My bosom. Don’t look.” The glorious cloak covered my movements as I slid my unbound hand up and reached under the tight neckline. It must have shifted around with all the activity—I was hampered by being one-handed and by the lightning flowing through my blood. The bodice was too tight for it to have fallen out, though. I needed to get to it. Rayfe watched my search with great interest.
“Would you like me to help?” That amusement rolled through his voice.
“No,” I hissed.
“I’d be pleased to.”
“No doubt.” Oddly, I wanted to laugh back at the glint in his eyes. Perhaps it was simply the relief of having it finally done with, but I felt lighter, some of the awful tension and fear in me uncoiling. I pressed the ring into his free hand. “Here.”
He took it from me, held it up to the sky, then kissed it, as he had before. Then he slid it on my finger again, on the hand joined to his.
“No ring for you?” I asked.
“I would be delighted to accept such a token from you, Andromeda. I hadn’t anticipated that you would be ready to offer one yet.” A subtle tension rode through him, a kind of heat.
“I don’t have one,” I confessed, feeling like I’d forgotten my sister’s natal day. Sure enough, a flash of something passed over his face, quickly covered.
“’Tis not important.”
While we talked, the priest had begun chanting again, picking up the pace and pitch of it. Rayfe slid his free arm around my waist, pulling me close. Uncertain, I laid my palm on his chest. Hugh in the background, protested loudly.
“This is not how my people do things, I told him.”
A fierce hunger transformed his face. “You belong to my people now, to our people, Andromeda. Never forget that.” His mouth descended on mine, possessive, consuming. Despite my enormous audience, the heat swept through me again, pushing aside all thought, setting the blood birds into frenzied flight.
When he let me go, the air suddenly chill on my wet lips, the look he gave me, the look of a man who had succeeded in a wild gambit and triumphed against all odds, left me shaken.
The feral priest said something loud and final even as Rayfe said, “It is done.”
A roar went up from the Tala, thunderous, woven with animal calls—howls, caws, and the full-throated roars of big cats. On the Windroven side, only the wind keened over the landscape.
Rayfe tossed an order over his shoulder at Terin. The guards around us dissolved away, as if by magic.
“Prince Hugh.” Rayfe tucked me against his side, our bound arms between us. “I greet you as a brother now.”
Indignant, Hugh opened his mouth to protest, then looked at me and stopped. With a gasping sob, Amelia flung herself across the platform to him. He gathered her against him, murmuring soothing words and kissing the top of her fair hair.
“I regret any unhappiness the Princess Amelia may have suffered.”
Hugh looked at me again. “You may have forced my hand with this low deed, but I hold you accountable. We of the Twelve Kingdoms do not treat our wives as beasts of bondage.”
Rayfe smiled, a wolfish grin. “I am as tied to her as she to me. On that note…” He put out a hand and Terin placed a scroll in it. He handed it to me. “Andromeda—I ask a gift from you on this our wedding day, to celebrate our alliance.”
I couldn’t open the scroll one-handed. He helpfully held one end with his free hand, so I could read. Oh, Uorsin would not like this. I handed it to Hugh. Amelia still wept against his chest, refusing to look at me.
“A list of Tala prisoners held by the High King at Ordnung, along with a list of prisons in the Twelve Kingdoms suspected of holding Tala prisoners,” I explained. “Rayfe is asking—”
“You, my queen, are asking,” Rayfe inserted, a hint of a growl in his voice.
I searched his face, anger burning warm in me. “Am I to do as I’m told, then?” I would have yanked away but, obviously, could not.
“This is not an order,” he told me softly. “I request it, as a gift. How can we celebrate a true alliance—something so many have suffered for—if our people are held prisoner?”
I sighed out a long breath. He had a point. Uorsin’s rage would know no bounds as it was.
“Are you sure this is even correct—Tala in all these prisons? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“There are many things you have been ignorant of before this—isn’t that true?” he replied in an even tone, holding my gaze.
I sighed for the truth of it.
“Prince Hugh.” I thought about the wording. “Please see that my father receives this list with my message. I send him, and Princess Ursula, my loving regard and everlasting fealty. I ask that they not mourn the sacrifice I’ve made for the peace of the kingdoms, but rather, to celebrate the promise of continuing peace, release these prisoners. If necessary, they can be escorted via armed guard and we will arrange to take custody of them. I will look forward to continuing communications with them and hope to visit soon.”
I didn’t look at Rayfe. I didn’t have to—his body spoke of his annoyance. Hugh nodded somberly.
“Now I shall keep the rest of our bargain.” Rayfe raised his voice. “We decamp immediately.”
With a cumulative shout of acknowledgment, the Tala pulled back and began preparations. At the far edges, some troops already streamed away, walking, trotting, and riding over the horizon. Birds arrowed off in vees and on their own. Some remained, keeping a watchful eye from above. It seemed some smaller creatures almost melted into the ground. Rayfe nodded at Hugh.
“Those prisoners we took have already been returned to you, yes?”
“Yes.” Hugh thinned his lips.
“Shall we depart?” Rayfe inquired formally.
Abruptly, I felt at a loss. This was it. I looked around for Dafne. Right there, by my side.
“I like him,” Dafne said in my ear, taking my free hand.
“You heard me. Rayfe. I like him. He’s good for you.”
I sputtered at that. “How can you possibly say that? You’ve barely met him.”
She shrugged. “With some people, it doesn’t take long to have their measure.”
“I’m really going to miss you.” I searched for more words.
“We’ll see each other again, I’m sure. Take care of yourself, Princess. Stop looking like an abandoned puppy. Oh, and enjoy tonight.” With a salacious grin, a wink, and a curtsy that barely skated the correct form, she left.
“Amelia?” Hugh spoke against her hair. “Andi is saying good-bye.”
“No!” she cried against his chest.
“Ami.” I put a hand on her shaking shoulder, Rayfe obligingly going with me. “Don’t cry. This is just like when you married Hugh and went off to Windroven. We’ll see each other again soon.”
“It’s not like that!” She tossed her hair back to give me a tearful look, then blanched to see Rayfe so close. “You’re wed to that—that beast and it’s all my fault!”
My heart tore. “It’s not. It’s not your fault, baby sister.”
She simply buried her face again. Hugh shrugged, uncomfortable. “She’s distraught.”
“Yes.” I stroked her hair. Sighed. “She is. Take her back to Windroven. Take care of her.”
He nodded, grave. “I always will.”
“I know.” And I used it against you.
“Rayfe of the Tala.” Hugh lifted his chin. “I charge you with the same. Take care of Princess Andi. If she comes to the least harm, a moment’s distress, I shall hold you personally responsible.”
“No more than I hold myself so,” Rayfe responded in kind, then squeezed my hand. “Shall we?”
Rayfe led me away, to the large black stallion I’d seen from the towers, waiting saddled and bridled. Several grooms waited to assist us and I soon discovered why. With much effort, they managed to help us onto the horse, still tied together. I would have said it couldn’t be done, but I ended up sideways on Rayfe’s lap, perched on his muscular thigh. They untied my cloak briefly and he lifted his arm over my head, snugging me up against his chest. It meant I had to cross my own arm tightly across my breasts, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. The grooms retied my cloak, rearranging it around me with Rayfe’s arm inside.
“It would be far easier to simply untie us now.”
He shook his head, looking out over the decamping army. “Not yet.”
“You know, in the Twelve Kingdoms, the men don’t have to tie up their brides to keep them from running off.”
“Don’t they? Perhaps the women are more biddable there.”
I opened my mouth to retort but couldn’t come up with a good answer. “How long, then?”
“The ties must remain until our marriage bed.”
“Wait—when will that be?”
He glanced down, amusement sparking through the dark blue of his eyes. “Anxious, my sweet?”
“I’m thinking more of the inconvenience in the interim,” I answered drily.
“Soon,” he answered my question. “Once I’m certain all are on their way, there is a place we can be together. Once I’m buried inside you, we can undo the wrappings.”
His words reawakened that heat, and I felt my cheeks burning. He chuckled. “I hadn’t thought you’d be shy.”
I hadn’t thought so, either.
He cuddled me closer, a warm hand on my thigh, nuzzling the small hairs at my temple. “You smell delicious. I like the feel of you on my lap. Kiss me.”
“No.” I refused to look at him. “No one can think that I’m eager for you.”
“And are you? Eager for me?”
I didn’t answer.
“There was a kingdom once, conquered by a mighty warrior. To cement his triumph, he married their queen, in a public ceremony before all her people. Then he stripped her and consummated the marriage while all watched, so that they would know her defeat as theirs. After that, he kept her alive, but as a collared slave who knelt next to his throne. Thus the people were daily reminded of their own servitude and his mastery of them all.”
He fell silent. A troop of horsemen, wild looking, with streaming hair, rode past and saluted us with cocky grins.
“I have never heard this story,” I finally replied.
“The kingdom was far on the other side of the Onyx Ocean. And it happened long ago. It’s not surprising your minstrels wouldn’t know it.”
“But yours do?”
“Ours know different things. Annfwn has been…insular, if you will.”
I turned that over in my mind, tying it together with the hints about border crossings and lack thereof.
“Why would you tell me such a story now?”
He cupped my cheek in his free hand and tilted my face up so I’d look into his eyes. His fingers were chilly against my hot skin. Bits of ice swirled in the air now, and the ocean roiled under a freezing fog.
“There are brutal men in the world. I am capable of a great deal, but I am no brute. I tell you this story so you’ll recognize the difference. However, you are mine now, and I will have everyone know it.”
“I thought we agreed to be bound to each other. I’m not a horse you purchased.”
“True enough,” he agreed easily. “I am also yours. You are welcome to kiss me also, if you wish.”
His lips curved in a tempting, taunting smile. It bothered me that I wanted to. That, despite it all, I was apparently eager for him, my woman’s center burning to be touched.
“I don’t wish to.”
“I think you are lying.”
“What happened to her?”
“The queen, the one who became a slave to her enemy.”
He frowned thoughtfully, his thumb caressing my cheekbone. “I don’t know. I don’t think the stories ever said.”
Of course they didn’t.
“I should point out that you have not defeated Uorsin.”
“You’d be foolish to try. You might be many things, but I don’t believe you are a fool.”
“I have what Annfwn needed, what Uorsin hoped to deny us. I’ve won this round.” He seemed about to say something more and stopped himself. He dropped his hand from my cheek and tucked the luxurious cloak around me to seal off the drafts. “It grows cold. Soon we’ll be able to leave.”
The game, it seemed, would not end here. Just as I was on my own journey, we were moving into the next phase of history, written or no.